In the uncanny valley of a Yorgos Lanthimos film, characters resemble human beings … but not entirely. In movies such as Dogtooth and The Lobster, the Greek writer-director has become a maestro of the queasy/funny horror-comedy, turning our universal anxieties into psychologically rich satires in which life’s mundane surfaces give way to dark, often bloody realities we don’t want to acknowledge. His movies are funny because they’re so shocking and disturbing because they’re so true.
But for them to really soar, their provocations need to be grounded in recognizable behavior, which gives Lanthimos a foundation to then stretch his extreme stories past their breaking point. But with his latest, we see what happens when his underlying ideas are not as complex as the intricacies of his execution. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is endlessly watchable but only intermittently arresting—you’re held captive by its craftsmanship, even if you find yourself not particularly invested in how it all plays out. In his best films, Lanthimos tweaks real life in a way that encourages us to dissect his metaphors and see ourselves in his bizarre dramatic players. With Sacred Deer, we can sit back a little easier—his grip isn’t as sure, and therefore not as suffocating or brilliant.
The film reunites Lanthimos with his Lobster star Colin Farrell, who plays Steven, a cardiologist, who’s married to an ophthalmologist, Anna (Nicole Kidman). They have two children, teen Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and her younger brother Bob (Sunny Suljic). It would be hard to describe their personalities because, in typical Lanthimos fashion, they don’t really have any. Speaking flat, unremarkable dialogue, the family members seem content as they discuss chores, their outfits, how their day was. But their posh house and well-manicured lawn belie an unspoken tension within the home—a creeping malaise that these attractive, accomplished people can’t quite articulate.
Quickly, Sacred Deer introduces us to the fly in this particular ointment. His name is Martin (Barry Keoghan), a moody teen who seems as lobotomized as the other characters. There’s one crucial difference, though: He has befriended Steven for reasons that feel sinister but will only eventually become clear, and he keeps insinuating himself into the man’s world, showing up at the doctor’s hospital or trying to corral him into having dinner at his and his mom’s place. Where Steven and his family have a blissed-out tranquility to their exchanges, Martin lets his simmering undercurrents wash across his face, hinting at something unwell—something not quite right—about this young man.
It wouldn’t be much fun to reveal where Sacred Deer goes from there, but suffice it to say that Steven’s almost clandestine friendship with Martin has to do with an unexpected shared past. And you can be sure that this friendship will shift radically once Martin decides that he wants more from Steven than he’s willing to offer this seeming stranger.
Dogtooth and The Lobster were excellent, in part, because Lanthimos and his frequent cowriter Efthymis Filippou constructed ingenious premises that, no matter how fanciful they were, reverberated with primal fears. (Dogtooth’s demented family echoed the worries of new parents trying to protect their children from the scary real world. The Lobster’s future society, which required individuals to mate or else, spoke to romantic conformity and the drudgery of matrimony.) Sacred Deer may be Lanthimos’ most visually and sonically ambitious work—technically, it’s pristine—but it doesn’t have the killer narrative hook that can tie all of the filmmaker’s disparate ideas together. His new movie is clever without ever quite deciding precisely what it’s about.
Farrell was a revelation in The Lobster playing a sad-sack who needs to find a partner, the actor discovering a beaten-down, more muted side of himself that was sympathetic but also winningly enigmatic. Steven is cut from a similar cloth—although he’s a more assertive figure—and again Farrell exudes a reserved, blank handsomeness that intimates something unknowable and possibly unsettling beneath his quiet eyes and bushy beard. But Steven’s slightly haughty air isn’t enough to build a whole performance around, and so when he discovers exactly what Martin wants—and how it could serve as his own comeuppance—the audience doesn’t feel the depth of the tragedy because we don’t know this man well enough.
The performances across the board are intentionally glassy and brittle, with Kidman particularly good as a doctor, wife and mother who seems to embody each role out of a sense of duty, as opposed to some driving passion. Lanthimos’ films constantly mock the banality of family, and in Sacred Deer he seems to have cast Steven, Anna and their kids with an eye toward presenting them as disembodied and stereotypical as possible: the gorgeous parents and their handsome children. They’re not supposed to be people but, rather, avatars, and Kidman, perhaps because she played a somewhat similar character in Eyes Wide Shut, is able to convey a generically beautiful, upper-class wife in such a way that it’s a bit unnerving.
This is not the only way in which Sacred Deer invites comparison to Stanley Kubrick. With The Lobster and even more so in his new movie, Lanthimos pays homage to the master’s skill with coldly composed images, bloodless characters and chilling camera moves that leave the viewer on edge. There is no shortage of references to The Shining and other late-period Kubrick works—Sacred Deer’s steadicam operator is as important a participant as anybody in the ensemble—and even Suljic’s cherubic, troubled face reminds one of Danny from that Stephen King adaptation. In addition, Lanthimos and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis incorporate Kubrick’s slow zooms, drawing us closer into a static scene or pulling us away at the same speed, consistently preparing us for horror that may or may not come.
If Kubrick is the obvious reference point, then Michael Haneke’s deeply cynical thrillers also share some DNA with Sacred Deer, especially as Martin, with his dead eyes and blasé manner, reveals his nefarious plan to Steven. Keoghan, who previously appeared in Dunkirk and wouldn’t have been out of place in Funny Games, possesses a remarkable stillness: He makes Martin seem equally wounded, needy, untrustworthy and possibly demented. The young actor holds that tension, never letting it dissipate, and so the characters around him to struggle to get a bead on the monster they’ve let into their midst.
But no matter the serene confidence that pulsates throughout Sacred Deer, there isn’t much beyond the film’s sustained menace. It’s not uncommon for Lanthimos to spring appalling surprises on his audience—normally, it’s during a terrible burst of violence—but Sacred Deer might be the first time that his shocks have an arbitrary, obligatory feel. (And too often, they require Kidman to behave in a degrading way, which loses its impact with each new instance.) There’s no shortage of intriguing notions rampaging through this slithering thriller—the limits of love, the impotency of reason in the face of the terrifying unknown, the tension between parents and their kids, the unshakable weight of guilt. But when Lanthimos is really cooking, his themes build and cohere, becoming as gripping as his storytelling and his images. Sacred Deer is just good enough to make you realize how much better he’s been before.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp
Release Date: October 20, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.